Several months ago, one of my daughters-in-law suggested that I write a blog post about how to survive as a busy mother these days. While this is not in my normal blog arena of home decorating and recipes, I did learn a few things raising three kids that were less than three years apart. So, this one is for you Elisa, and all of the other moms out there. I hope it might help those of you who may feel like “the man with the spinning plates.” And just to break up all the talk, talk, talk, I’ve included, in no particular order, some of my favorite arrangements from the past year in honor of Mother’s Day!
When I was a child, we watched the Ed Sullivan show, which featured variety acts of all description. One of these acts was the man with the spinning plates. On top of long dowels he had dinner plates centered, and he would twist the dowels until the plates would spin like a top. He would move up and down the line of the spinning plates, making sure the dowels were kept twirling fast enough to keep the plates spinning. If they slowed down, the plates would fall to the floor. It was great entertainment…trust me!
The man with the spinning plates is the best metaphor I could think of to describe how I felt most of the years my three children were growing up. If I let something quit spinning or fall through the cracks, something would crash to the floor. Literally.
Lucky for me, I had high energy in those days, and was able to balance work, child rearing, shopping and housework, with seemingly one hand tied behind my back. As if that weren’t enough, I served as president of the PTO for two years, headed up United Way and Walk American at work, and a myriad of other volunteer tasks. Added to that were three active children who were involved in cheerleading, golf, volleyball, drama, band concerts, journalism, baseball, and many other activities over the years. They, of course, wanted me to attend and support these ventures, which I did to the best of my ability. To some, it probably appeared like I had the world by the tail. But inside, I was the man (or woman) with the spinning plates, signing papers for field trips at 11pm, throwing a load of laundry in the washer before work and drying it after, and often remembering to fill my tank with gas at 6 am on my way to work. Some days there were just a few too many plates to spin.
If you feel like I did, that you are on a treadmill of never-ending responsibilities, here are a few tips that made my life a little more manageable. Even if your kids are now grown and gone like ours, many of these shortcuts have become so engrained in our daily life, that we still use them today.
• Only grocery shop once every two weeks – With the exception of a mini shopping stop to replenish fresh fruits, veggies and milk, I only grocery shopped every two weeks. I think this actually started out of necessity when we were young, as we could only afford to do major grocery shopping on payday, which was every two weeks. Regardless, this one habit really saved me, and kept our lives more organized. I will admit that by the two-week mark, it was pretty slim pickings in the granola bar, fruit snack, string cheese areas, but by shopping only every other week, I was able to develop a routine of restocking the larder that really worked. Buying in bulk when possible and having a well- stocked pantry made if possible to have everything on hand to make almost any meal at all times. I am still somewhat of a “food hoarder” today, but I am working on that:]
• Menu plan – While doing my bi-weekly shopping, I would mentally menu plan meals that I would make for the next two weeks. Based on what was on sale, I would add new meal ideas to the old standbys that we all loved. Foods such as spaghetti, tacos, stroganoff, chili, tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken parmesan, hamburgers, pot roast, and barbeque were not only family favorites, but most of them made enough for lunch leftovers for the parents, and after school nibbles for the kids. Cooking in larger quantities was a real Godsend for children that were coming and going at all times, and having healthy left-overs they could rewarm was a way for me to feed them even when I wasn’t there.
• Teach the kids to cook – If you haven’t gathered by now, I LOVE to cook. When the kids were little, they would stand on kitchen chairs and mix cookie dough (I think we still thought it was safe to eat it in those days), grate cheese, open cans, or whatever else they could handle. This was something I did with my mother when I was growing up, and it was not only a way to get some help and teach them to cook, but also a great way to spend time together and catch up on their day. Teaching kids to prepare a few simple meals that can sustain life when you aren’t around is doing them, and you, a favor.
• Make-ahead meals and slow cookers – In my experience, the absolute worst time of the day for a working mother, is dinnertime. When they were young, I would often have one or more toddlers hanging on my legs while I was trying to make dinner, sobbing “I’m hungry.” As I threw Cheerios at them, I would start rattling the pots and pans. Not fun. My savior came in the form of preparing casseroles ahead, taking things out of the freezer early in the day so they were ready to cook, and using the slow cooker. One real timesaver was to prepare all of the ingredients for the slow cooker the night before and put it in the refrigerator. In the morning, I would put the crock in the slow cooker and turn it on for 8 hours. There is nothing sweeter for a mother than to return home at 5 or 6 pm and have the house smell like Donna Reed had been there, cooking all day long.
Another trick, if you have the freezer space, is to have a cooking day when you prepare several casseroles at one time and label them for the freezer. My oldest daughter and I did this when she was expecting her third child, so that her family would have meals on hand when the baby arrived. Once you get in the groove, you can easily turn out 10-15 casseroles in a couple of hours. It was fun, very rewarding, and a real lifesaver later on. The good news is that she didn’t have to stand beside me on a kitchen chair this time.
• Short cutting the laundry – For most of my children’s lives, I did the family laundry. Before you scream, hear me out. In our house, it just worked much easier to do large loads of jeans, whites, towels, sheets, etc. in large loads at one time. On laundry day, everyone would bring their baskets to the laundry room and I would make up full loads of each category. They would help to fold and put away, and we never ended up with gray undershirts or white towels turned pink. Once they got older, they usually did do their own loads, but when they were younger, the family laundry method worked best for us.
• Chores – I need to admit right up front that I was not one of those parents who had elaborate chore charts and jars that you put marbles in when the jobs were completed. That actually would have been just another thing for me to manage, and another plate to keep spinning. Instead, I would just ask when I needed something done and grab the closest kid, trying to keep it equitable. My youngest child Bryan, seemed to get more than his share of requests, probably because his older sisters were gone working, or doing sports, or whatever and he was the only one left at home. It got to be a joke that he would mimic me with “Bryan do this, and Bryan do that.” At least I think it was a joke…
There were also expectations about the kids keeping their own rooms picked up (I was 2 for 3 on that one) and once they started driving, helping to pick up the younger ones and run occasional errands for me. Total aside…It is a well- documented fact that a new driver’s willingness to cheerfully run such errands has a half-life. About three weeks is normal.
• Group errands together – Whenever possible, I would group my errands and do them all in one day. Now, I didn’t plan them out like the UPS driver with only right hand turns, but I did plan out a route that made the best use of my time. During my years working in town, I could use one lunch hour a week to go to the bank, dry cleaners, post office and drug store, and still leave time to eat a quick bite. Later in life, my husband and I cherished our Friday’s off so much that we got in the habit of running our errands on Thursday night to keep Friday’s errand-free. We would drive from place to place, checking off our list. Even now that we are both semi-retired, we group our errands together and do them as efficiently as possible. Old habits die hard.
• Don’t be shy to ask for help – Asking for help has never been my long suit, but if you start having plates crashing down around you, it is time to save your sanity and ask for help. A spouse, parent, friend, neighbor, or babysitter, will usually be more than happy to help when asked. When we moved into our first home, I was eight months pregnant with my first child. The woman next door, herself the mother of two and clearly an angel sent from heaven, came over introduce herself. At the end of the visit, she looked me in the eye said something I will never forget. “If you need anything at all, you call me. There will be days when you won’t have the energy to unload the dishwasher. You call me and I will come and do it for you.” I looked at her like she was speaking Swahili. Why would I, the ultimate plate spinner, need someone to help me unload the dishwasher? And then I had the baby…
When my three children were young, I broke my foot in two places in an accident at work. I was on crutches and in pain. Over the next several days, women that served with me on the PTO board and co-workers from the airline showed up every morning with meals. Amazing, delicious meals that I didn’t have to prepare. Then my parents, who lived an hour away, came over to help. My mother took over the laundry and cleaning, while my dad vacuumed. Sitting there with my foot up watching this outpouring of love was a truly humbling experience for the woman who had made a career out of plate-spinning. So, please ask for help when you need it. And then someday, when you are in a position to pay it forward, help someone else who needs it.
• Throw money at the problem – From time to time, there will be things in your life that will not get done and will cause you aggravation. In the worst-case scenario, these undone tasks will cause fights, tears, and gnashing of teeth. Don’t ask me how I know this. I realize that not everyone is in a position to throw money at a problem, but if you are able, on occasion it will be justifiably worth the expense. When I was a younger mother, I wanted our house to look nice. Like out-of-a-magazine nice. My mother has always kept a beautiful home and having grown up in that environment, I wanted to do likewise. And I would practically kill myself trying to keep our little 1470 square foot house clean to my standards. About this time of near exhaustion, I started noticing that week after week, these two ladies would enter the house across the street from us and emerge a couple of hours later. They had a vacuum, buckets and other items. One day it dawned on me that they were cleaning ladies. I’m quick like that. So, I called my neighbor and asked for a referral. This wonderful mother/daughter combo cleaned our tiny abode every two weeks for a very nominal fee, and became like family who followed us to clean two more of our homes over the years.
Now that we are empty nester retirees, we clean our own home. But when we were both working, throwing money at the problem was worth the cost. Having someone else ease the burden of some of these chores can make all of the difference in your quality of life, as well as free up time for more family interaction. That can be money well spent. We also took this philosophy with the yard care later on, with similarly stellar results. What used to take us an entire weekend to accomplish in the yard, this crew would do in less than an hour. Throwing money at a problem had never felt so good.
• Understand that this situation is only temporary – When I was a young parent, people would often tell me, “these are the best times of your life. Enjoy every minute with those beautiful children, for someday they will be gone.” Intellectually, I knew they were right, but when the plates start wobbling, it is hard to enjoy “every minute.” I was at the kids’ elementary school for nine years! Nine years of concerts, carnivals, PTO Board meetings, plays, open houses, and being room mother. I didn’t think I would ever “graduate” from Canyon View Elementary! Luckily, for most of those years I worked part time, which availed me the opportunity to be at the school often, and I’ve never regretted it. One by one, they all moved on to middle and high school, and while there was still a need to attend activities, and chaperone the occasional dance and graduation party, involvement in a teenager’s school is not as required or desired as it is in elementary.
Remember, your situation is temporary and there will be less plates to keep track of as the years go by. In our semi-retirement, we are busier than ever, but we are doing exactly the things we feel are important. We are careful about how many plates we have spinning at once, and are able for the most part, to keep it manageable.
Being a grandparent is fun. Being a parent is hard. Today, our children are collectively raising nine grandchildren and face challenges as parents that didn’t exist when we were raising them. Social media and technology access have added more plates. It is no longer safe to play in parks without a parent or run the streets with the neighbor kids like their parents did when they were little. School, which used to be a pretty good place to be, can sometimes be an opportunity for bullying, over-work, and other potential dangers. I do not envy the parents of today with these challenges, but the ones I know do a wonderful job. And their plates keep spinning, and spinning, and spinning…